Terminal Man: Brian De Palma's "Carlito's Way"

Carlito’s Way begins at the end. A silenced pistol fires in a black and white close up followed by a close-up of Al Pacino’s Carlito Brigante. He takes another bullet to his chest and crumbles to the ground. The assassin swiftly exits. The strings of Patrick Doyle’s score rise as Penelope Ann Miller cradles Carlito, whose perspective is soon fixed on the vertical lines of overhead lights and faces of investigating physicians. “Somebody’s pulling me close to the ground,” he narrates. “I can sense but I can’t see.” He knows that this is the end and that he’s past his prime, at the same time trying to reassure us. “My heart, it don’t ever quit.”

 Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) in  Carlito’s Way

Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) in Carlito’s Way

It’s quite a heart. Director Brian De Palma is effectively doing a lot with the beginning of Carlito’s Way, a film about holding fast to dreams in a rat maze of predestination. Some reviewers complained that De Palma’s decision to begin with the death of a crucial character was a fundamental flaw undercutting the suspense. But that perspective misses the accomplished of the director, himself somewhat like Carlito as an enfant terrible struggling to make good in the “legitimate world” of big budget Hollywood moviemaking after a catastrophic failure that could have ended his career. The director sutures us so well into a character’s dreams and the moment-by-moment tension that we forget about Carlito’s terminus. Carlito’s Way is one of De Palma’s most dramatically engaging films, a character-driven epic where the final half-hour is a non-stop chase through offices, a hospital, a night club, the subway, and Grand Central Station, concluding at this incendiary Ground Zero destination of death. It’s the sculpted high-wire suspense of a master, so effective that we think we’re on our way to the Bahamas with Carlito.

De Palma also, with Doyle’s music, cinematographer Stephen Burham’s close-ups, and Pacino’s affable voice-over narration, immediately makes us like Carlito Brigante, a “reputed assassin” and street thug, “the J.P. Morgan of the smack business,” a “motherfucker to the max” from the Barrio—he’s even possibly the most likable character in De Palma’s filmography. It could be dismissed as another flaw that the Carlito constantly described as a feared enforcer and dope-runner seems too removed from the sage and good-humored hero freshly released after five years in prison (for a 30-year sentence) after his trusted lawyer David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) has pointed out illegal wiretaps and evidence tapering on the part of the district attorney, Norwalk (James Rebhorn).  Owen Gleiberman’s Entertainment Weekly review sums it up, “I never really believed that a heroin dealer and coolly pragmatic killer could be such a simple, romantic guy,” contrasting the dulled weariness of Carlito unfavorably to Tony Montana of Scarface, the DePalma/Pacino anti-hero of ten years before, “who was such a glowering, paranoid fireball that he was like a walking id.”

 Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s  Scarface  (1983)

Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983)

But DePalma’s playfulness with character matches his circular story construction, as if he’s asking us to wonder about how what he chooses to show as a filmmaker affects us (a recurring theme for him). Maybe our expectations are as pessimistic as the criminal justice system, which dictates that Carlito would need a long sentence. “I changed. And it didn’t take no 30 years like Your Honor felt, but only five!” he proclaims to the judge (played by Paul Mazursky), pointing out that he’s “Born again! Like the Watergaters!” But the switch in his nature can’t swerve him away from the specter of Predestination. Carlito swaggers in movement, confident and thankful of his unexpected freedom. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” he shouts from the courthouse steps, but he’s never free. Wherever he goes, he’ll end up back against the barrel of that gun. That’s the Hitchcockian seed of tension and tragedy De Palma masterfully infuses into this film of simulated freedom. The character comes to feel an affinity for a nightclub cockroach trying to scurry away on a counter, trapped and released by an empty drinking glass. There’s no way out for Carlito—or for us—but we’ll sit for 141 minutes, hoping for him to escape to “Paradise,” the inverse of Scarface’s profane dream of wealth and women. All Carlito wants to do is rent cars out to tourists in the Bahamas.

Pacino’s Montana was irresistible and hilarious to behold, however repugnant and self-absorbed. He exuded a grandiosity that deliciously fed into our bad consciences. Scarface was released to a degree of infamy in 1983, regarded as a trashy exploitation picture expressing the blind excesses and lack of hindsight of which the coming Reagan Administration would take full advantage (Montana winds up on Miami’s shores during the last days of Jimmy Carter).  In Carlito’s Way, De Palma and Pacino are working under the auspices of the same producer, Martin Bregman, and with the occasional familiar face in the cast (and so similarly open to racial criticism: Pacino is a Sicilian American playing a Cuban in Scarface and a Puerto Rican in Carlito’s Way).

 “Born again, like the Watergaters.” David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) and Carlito.

“Born again, like the Watergaters.” David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) and Carlito.

As if to clearly lay out a deliberate reversal in tone, De Palma casts Scarface’s antagonistic chainsaw wielding Colombian and Montana’s early victim, Al Israel (De Palma fans will also recognize him as a sleazy porn producer in Body Double), as Carlito’s kingpin employer Rolando Rivaz. The gratuitous violence between Pacino and Israel in the earlier film becomes a congenial break-up in the latter. Asking if Carlito wants compensation for his silence regarding Rolando’s empire during incarceration, Carlito says, “I don’t want nothing from you,” pointing out, “I’m retired.” “So Carlito Brigante has got religion?” Rolando asks. “I’m studying to be a priest,” Carlito answers. It’s as if the spirit of Scarface is pleading Pacino and De Palma to go back to that reckless cocaine-fueled past, but the mature and tired hero—and his director—is determined to resist.

*

In 1993, Brian De Palma was at a crossroads. The Movie Brat who emerged alongside Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Schrader (in the wild days during which Carlito’s Way is set) had swung through vagaries of success and failure, acquiring an indelible reputation if always falling short of his peers’ respect. After his early trilogy of subversive cultural comedies (The Wedding Party, Hi, Mom!, Greetings), he emerged as a distinctive voice of the new macabre: Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out. He was unfairly dismissed as an imitation Hitchcock, though as Jason Zinoman points out in his 2012 book Shock Value, he was in some ways responding to Hitchcock, driven by his own autobiographical place as an obsessively curious voyeur. Like slasher movie soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) from Blow Out (1981), he was a skilled technician honing his craft in a disrespected genre, even if, like Terry with that film’s final “good scream” sound effect, he put the painful demons of his soul into the work. Where critics and audiences gravitate to worlds where not only good and evil are clear-cut, but also good and bad taste, romanticism and satire, earnestness and dread, De Palma is troubling. Because he is hilarious, devilishly so, daring to cackle at awful things, but he’s also the sincere artificer of personal films, driven by the domestic problems of his origins no less than Scorsese was by the uneasy coexistence of Catholicism and “Mean Street” codes of aggression.

 Movie sound-man Jack Terry (John Travolta) in  Blow Out  (1981)

Movie sound-man Jack Terry (John Travolta) in Blow Out (1981)

De Palma’s second big gangster film, Scarface, 1987’s The Untouchables, was the De Palma anomaly: a broadly accessible and stylish all-star blockbuster. Though intensely likable, the ambivalences of De Palma’s other work was muted, which could lead some to looking down on it as a contract job where the filmmaker, like Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner, playing the dullest of De Palma’s heroes), has been hired to just “do some good,” presenting the sanctity of a perfect nuclear family and camaraderie, the forces of justice prevailing over Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Even so, there’s a quaint whisper of the familiar De Palma when one considers how Capone isn’t punished for his cruelty and gangsterism, but for—so anticlimactically—tax evasion. What more, Capone’s opening remarks are right: Prohibition is stupid. At the concluding moments, a reporter asks what Ness will do if Prohibition is repealed. “I think I’ll have a drink,” he says and Ennio Morricone’s music explodes in major key triumph. The lament of “so much violence,” beginning with a young girl blowing up and peaking with Ness’ mentor (Sean Connery) getting riddled with bullets, is the result of some transitory bullshit legislation, and like with a Hollywood happy ending, we just go along with it. It’s his most crowd-pleasing happy ending, but I’ve always sensed De Palma was muffling some laughter at us with it.

After The Untouchables, De Palma made his Vietnam War passion project, Casualties of War (1989), a true story about a American squad that raped and murdered a Vietnamese girl. One member of the squad (Michael J. Fox) doesn’t participate, and finds himself testifying against his fellow soldiers. According to journalist Julie Salamon, De Palma was modeling himself on David Lean and The Bridge on the River Kwai, seeing “Casualties as a chance to confront directly his recurring theme: the serious moral consequences of a failure to act, or of acting too late.” Poor test-screenings led to De Palma tinkering with his preferred cut, and when it was released to mixed reviews and poor box office numbers, De Palma was depressed by the compromise.

 Tom Hanks as “master of the universe” Sherman McCoy in De Palma’s  The Bonfire of the Vanities  (1990)

Tom Hanks as “master of the universe” Sherman McCoy in De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Redemption unexpectedly presented itself with the prestigious offer of directing Warner Bros.’ adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s satirical bestseller The Bonfire of the Vanities. As documented in Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy, De Palma found himself without his original producers (Jon Peters and Peter Guber, who left Warner Bros. early in pre-production) and handling many of the precarious logistics of the expensive production himself. Condensing the lengthy and controversial text with questionable decisions in casting and plot detail that could be interpreted as both risky and sheepish, De Palma’s idiosyncrasies, conceivably ideal for Wolfe’s journalistic mesh of realism and hyperbole (Kael had pointed out that the early De Palma films like Hi, Mom! were more Tom Wolfe than Tom Wolfe), struggled to breathe on the cluttered canvas. The treatment of a Wall Street “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) and the excesses of the period’s wealth, alongside the cynical convergence of politics, activism, and journalism, was too reverent. Released before Christmas in 1990, the $45 million final product was a critical and commercial disaster. De Palma was persona non grata. Salamon writes, “Just as Tom Wolfe’s book had become the book to love for exploring the folly of excess, De Palma’s film had become the film to hate because of its excess.”

Reading about the De Palma in Salamon’s Devil’s Candy, getting older, trying to get acclimated to a changing system, and realize the dreams that are always barely out of his grasp, one can’t help but see Carlito Brigante, a fallen legend given a big chance by taking charge of Kleinfeld’s El Paraiso night club, the profits from which he’ll use to accomplish his goals.  He has his admiring acolytes like his young cousin Guajiro (John Ortiz), bodyguard Pachanga (Luis Guzman), and a vicious up-and-coming Italian gangster, Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo), who greatly annoys Carlito perhaps because he’s representative of the person Carlito once was. Between 1987 and 1993, Hollywood was changing, with special effects moviemaking on one hand and another New Wave of indie filmmakers on the other. Whatever De Palma’s problems following Bonfire of the Vanities, the new generation of filmmakers still enthusiastically studied him. Scarface had since become a classic, and a young Benny Blanco-type director, Quentin Tarantino, whom in a short 1993 Entertainment Weekly interview named Blow Out one of his three favorite films (along with Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver).

 “You Are So Beautiful": Carlito embraces Gail (Penelope Ann Miller)

“You Are So Beautiful": Carlito embraces Gail (Penelope Ann Miller)

Carlito’s Way again had De Palma helming a big “serious” film, but it hardly shies away from hard genre undercurrents. As if to distance itself from year-end awards consideration, Carlito’s courtroom declaration is something of an Oscar-speech parody (the judge even saying, “Mr. Brigante, you’re not accepting an award”), made more interesting considering that Pacino finally won his long-coveted Oscar months earlier (the district attorney he’s putting down with his rhetoric is even played by his Scent of a Woman nemesis, James Rebhorn). Pacino wears a leather “superfly” jacket through most of the film, and we see a movie theater in the background showing Gordon Parks’ Shaft’s Big Score, a Blaxploitation classic. The thugs Carlito finds himself arrayed against, including Benny Blanco, the nefarious drug dealer Quisqueya (Rick Aviles), bloated and duplicitous debtor Saso (Jorge Porcel), paralyzed colleague-turned-informer Lalin (Viggo Mortensen), the Tagliucci Family hit-men, and of course Sean Penn’s coked-out Kleinfeld, are often humorously sketched caricatures who do have Tony Montana’s DNA.  Carlito is the “weird” one in this increasingly gonzo universe. Screenwriter David Koepp’s dialogue is as quotable as it is cliché ridden (“Free at last! Free at last!”) Needle-dropping Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” as Carlito and struggling dancer girlfriend Gail (Anne Miller) make love is kitsch, but as Carlito busts Gail’s door chain and the two passionately embrace, it effectively comes off as one of the purest moments of romantic attachment between two people in any contemporary Hollywood film.  There’s no irony in it, just the hungry longing for the “one face that didn’t change, one face that still knows you, looks at you the same way it always did.” Even the “Flower Duet” piece that plays when Carlito first spies on Gail dancing in her studio is pointedly unfashionable.

But that’s the spirit of Carlito, holding fast to a dream of sailing off into the sunset. Carlito—and the film—is defiantly old fashioned, a gunslinger from the Old West caught up in the unfamiliar New Barrio, where “instead of tumbleweed and cow dung, you got stripped car wrecks and dog shit.” Miniskirts and marijuana are replaced by “platforms, cocaine, and dances I don’t dance.” Comrades from the old days are in prison or shot dead by the careless new generation. Honest dreamers like Gail have given up on high hopes, her Broadway ambitions now relegated to a strip club where WASPy spectators offer high critical praise.

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The New York of Carlito’s Way is filled with people with no sense of time. They don’t dream. They dance, do coke, and fuck. They are exuberantly high on drugs and power, blind to consequences, reaching out for a perpetual, spectacular Now. Kleinfeld is a fascinating representation of this, as he’s not even slightly duplicitous regarding his corruption. He flagrantly steals $1 million from an incarcerated and terminally ill mob client, Tony Tagliucci (Frank Minucci), figuring a simple denial about the money’s delivery to another gangster will get him off the hook. For his transgression, Kleinfeld is forced to bust Tagliucci out of a barge prison. As Carlito’s mans Kleinfeld’s boat during the escape, the lawyer bludgeons Tagliucci to death after picking him up near a buoy; he has no sense that surviving Tagliucci’s family will seek revenge. If the D.A. has Kleinfeld in a corner for unethical practices, the lawyer, with a hand-in-a-cookie-jar da-da-dum demeanor, perfunctorily gives up Carlito—even though Carlito’s been clean. Kleinfeld moves left, right, back, forward, whatever, to keep himself temporarily out of hot water (that Kleinfeld’s look was modeled on frequent Trump defender Allan Dershowitz makes his frantic maneuvering more repugnantly resonant).

Caught up in the fun of his mob associations, Kleinfeld is a gleeful anachronism, a geek giddily coasting through a parade of heavies. He’s a worm but, given the luxurious temptations, he invites our bad consciences to identify with him. He’s successful but short-sighted, getting high not only on drugs but also the allure that voyeuristic mob movie audiences seek, asserting himself awkwardly—in a way where we can’t help but laugh—as he calls a handsome Italian man dancing with Gail an ethnic slur. “Hey. Hey you…WOP!” Penn’s mercurial absorption into this creation of Kleinfeld has him go through various permutations of enthralling assholedom. And though Pacino is a blustering force that holds the whole picture together, it’s Carlito’s collision with Kleinfeld that is Carlito’s Way‘s crucial backbone. These are two fascinating men from different tribes who go through permutations of friendship and loyalty to dueling antagonism, the “code of the goddamned street” against the code of “save your own ass.” Kleinfeld is out of his depth, but Penn doesn’t miss a beat in playing out a petulant determination to make-believe that he’s in control.

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But Davey Kleinfeld is also Carlito’s double. Both are doomed from the beginning. The embezzled Tagliucci tells Kleinfeld that he’s already dead, “The contract’s already out. The lime pit’s already dug.” No matter what move Kleinfeld makes or how lucky he gets (he survives a stabbing), he’s a walking corpse.  After Tagliucci lays everything out for him, Kleinfeld is nauseous and peers out the barge fence toward Manhattan, fixing his eyes. He’s finally aware of his limitations. Then cut to the next scene, he’s doing cocaine and drinking whiskey in the comfort of his spacious office, walking on sunshine again, an invincible master of the universe. He might dupe the D.A., betray his best friend, kill Tagliucci, and survive being stabbed, but as we see elsewhere in this film, time catches up. Kleinfeld is jokingly described by Carlito (after the lawyer has a restroom tryst with El Paraiso hostess Steffie, played by Ingrid Rogers) as being “faster than a speeding bullet.” But, as Carlito explains his own changed nature to Gail, “You can’t sprint all the time. It catches you.” He adds, “You don’t get reformed. You just run out of wind.” The future is laid out before us: when Carlito sees Tony Tagliucci sinking lifelessly into the water, he says to Kleinfeld, “You killed us, Dave. You killed us.”

*

De Palma digs deep into the precarious nature of time during the film’s stellar money delivery sequence, where Carlito reluctantly escorts his courier cousin Guajiro to impress Quisqueya and his pool-playing cocaine cowboys operating behind a barbershop. The meeting is a sham, as the plan was for Guajiro to arrive alone and be killed by an assassin hiding in the bathroom. Carlito’s presence complicates the matter. Quisqueya says to him, “We got to do a little business,” absurd because there’s no future here. Carlito has to die too.  De Palma, a physics prodigy who is able to deconstruct the myriad angles of a given space and time, and milk it for maximum tension through a rhythm of close-ups and slow zooms from countering angles cut side by side, does a terrific job in catching Carlito’s awareness of the grave situation, tipped off by a “broken” bathroom. “I can wait a week,” he confidently says, referring to his bladder. “Yeah, come back in a week, we’ll have it fixed for you,” Quisqueya’s henchman says. Again, there is no “next week.”

 “This shot will make you change your religious beliefs.” Carlito’s orchestration on the pool-table doubles for director De Palma staging the action

“This shot will make you change your religious beliefs.” Carlito’s orchestration on the pool-table doubles for director De Palma staging the action

Guajiro, meanwhile, is offered a beer by Quisqueya, who opens a large cooler full of icy water. Guajiro reaches deep into it and keeps coming up empty handed, a great ploy for De Palma to racket up unease. “There’s no beer in here, man,” he says to Quisqueya. “Sure there is, way down at the bottom.” Guajiro reaches in deeper. The jukebox volume goes up, girls dancing by the pool table, and De Palma emphasizes Carlito’s suspicious eyes scanning the room, seeing holstered guns and suspicious shadows. Sensing doom, he improvises, interrupting a game of eight-ball to perform an extraordinary shot. “No trick shot,” he tells the players. “This is magic time. After you see this shot, you’re gonna give up your religious beliefs.” The set-up on the pool table is as rigorous and complicated as De Palma’s directorial arrangement.

Everyone hits their beats. Through the sunglasses of the man facing him, Carlito sees an assassin slip out of the restroom toward Guajiro. Quisqueya smashes the cooler lid down on Guajiro’s arm just as Carlito slams the pool stick into an unsuspecting thug’s face. Carlito grabs a gun from another guy’s holster while the assassin slashes Guajiro’s throat. Carlito fires and, while taking a bullet to the arm, swiftly incapacitates everyone else in the room, hiding in the restroom after he’s run out of ammo. In a moment of comic levity, Carlito pretends to reload, screaming into the dark that these motherfuckers are “all gonna fucking die big time!” Carlito storms out and sees he’s safe, but also looks down on Guajiro, dead.

Carlito did indeed perform “magic” but it was still too late. He couldn’t stave off the inevitable. He grabs the pile of Quisqueya’s money ($25,000) that he will invest into Kleinfeld’s El Paraiso night club, ensuring funds for his escape. “I don’t invite this shit,” Carlito narrates. “It just happens to me. I run. It runs after me. Gotta be somewhere to hide.” (For an absolutely magnificent breakdown of this scene and how De Palma’s film syntax works, look at Adrian Martin’s essay here).

 Carlito squares off against his double-of-sorts, Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo)

Carlito squares off against his double-of-sorts, Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo)

Upset that Carlito has slid back into shady territory because of his loyalty to Kleinfeld, Gail walks away from him and insinuates that she’s going to have an abortion. She doesn’t want to have a child who won’t have a father. She accompanies Carlito to the D.A.’s office, where Norwalk reveals Kleinfeld’s betrayal and tries to compel Carlito to testify against the lawyer. Between the law and murderous gangsters who will suspect Carlito was in on the murder of Tony Tagliucci, Carlito’s prospect of fatherhood motivates him to jump the gun on his dream. In a cab with Gail, he reassures her, “I got a way out of this.” Coming to a stop, he tells Gail to wait five minutes in the cab.

De Palma here uses moviemaking’s formal confines to frame time. It’s the first time in the picture when Carlito or Kleinfeld hasn’t been the focus of our attention, and alone with Gail it’s as if we’ve entered a different movie (the cab is appropriately parked near a movie theater). De Palma films Gail in a medium shot as she waits in the back seat, a tender piano melody on the soundtrack. She looks out the window and we disappear into her point of view. The camera slowly zooms in on a mother next to a stroller with a sleeping baby. She holds her arms open as another child stumbles toward her. De Palma cuts to a close-up of Gail, tearful as she stares. The piano’s melody grows sweeter. Her point-of-view continues to zoom, past the mother and child and onto the sleeping baby in the stroller. We cut back to Gail in the medium shot, emotionally exhaling. We’re lost with her in this moment, separate from the string of chases, deals, and traumas that preceded it. And then—the music stops and Gail is pulled from her inwardness as Carlito knocks on the window, train tickets in hand. The movies are themselves a place to hide, through zooms and cuts, through non-diagetic music and performance, where a person psychologically absconds from a given reality as Carlito will flee from his club when Italian mobsters close in, booking for the subway and to Grand Central Station to make an 11:30 train to Miami, his $70,000 in tow.

 Carlito and Gail make plans for a train ride to freedom

Carlito and Gail make plans for a train ride to freedom

But, “it catches you.” Benny Blanco and Carlito’s bodyguard Pachanga are sycophantic but, as Carlito’s interest in getting involved with anything illegal has waned, he’s vulnerable. “You’re over, man,” Blanco tells him. “You’re in the fucking history books.” He’s called the bluff on Carlito’s threats, and in their face-to-face confrontation, filmed in dual extreme close-up shots, Blanco has the menacing upper hand. Carlito is rhetorically powerful, but benign. If Carlito was still up to his infamous reputation, he would kill Benny Blanco without hesitation. Blanco becomes the key player we—and Carlito—forget about during the film’s final chase through Manhattan, a relentless showstopper to which the film, very deliberately paced through its 140 minutes, has been escalating toward through its entirety.

This chase doesn’t begin when Carlito absconds from the club, but when he knocks on the taxi cab window and interrupts Gail’s private moment. The Tagliucci assassins are already swarming around Carlito when he has his final confrontation with Kleinfeld, whose death Carlito ensures when he slips the bullets out of the lawyer’s gun. His presence at the hospital implicates Carlito with Tagliucci’s murder, and De Palma’s camera beats down on him in aggressive tracking shots through El Paraiso, “Lady Marmalade” pulsing through the disco, Carlito negotiating his limited time between Italian gangsters who “just happen” to have dropped by, and Saso, who has taken it upon himself to take Carlito’s saved money. This confrontation with Saso is the one time in the film when the “old Carlito,” a viciously sanguinary reprobate, materializes. Carlito backs Saso against a wall and, after the fat man’s repeated denials, pulls out a switchblade and, with what comes across as murderous earnestness, says, “I’ll cut your fucking liver out!” Saso admits the cash is behind the bar. Carlito walks past the Italians and tries to concoct more distractions by demanding the waiter bring them a better bottle of champagne. He works his way to the bar, finds the money, and runs.

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De Palma draws us into the fever of accelerated movement as Carlito is pursued by the Italians through a subway train, rescued by some police academy trainees, and finally ends up, after a sustained delay, embroiled in an escalator shootout in Grand Central Station. De Palma, better than most any other director, has made us forget about Carlito’s final destination of the prologue, just as the wide array of faces and deaths from the last half-hour has made us forget about Benny Blanco. Carlito sees Gail by the train and runs to her, but someone passes him on his left. More gunfire ensues between cops and a limping Tagliucci mobster, who dies. Relieved, Carlito and Gail prepare to board their dream.

“Remember me?” Benny Blanco says to Carlito, but also to us.  His visage is the film’s prologue waking us up from the entrancing suspense dream. The camera arcs down from Benny’s grinning countenance to the gun that opened the story. The dream ends at 24 frames-per-second, not in Paradise but precisely as Gail said it would, “with me carrying you into an emergency room.” Carlito pulls out a wad of cash. “Get out, Gail. Both of you,” he gasps, becoming paler. The prologue’s vertical line of florescent lights comes back into view. The camera goes upside down and arcs up to Carlito on the stretcher. We’ve come all this way with him, from a certain destination that nevertheless seemed possible to bypass. “Sorry, boys,” Carlito, and De Palma, tells us. The “last of the Mo’Ricans” understands this is the end to a “rough night.” The real world of tears and ambulances drifts away. “Tired, baby, tired,” he says, and the sound of Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” sends us away with Gail dancing in a posted advertisement that comes to life.

*

Carlito’s Way is a beautiful after-hours ride to nowhere, a late night discotheque frenzy of manic physicality blasting off and crumpling down with the same bullet, where the dancers are passionately moving as if to a final destination of perfection, but are escorted out, dozing, on last call. The menace of Carlito Brigante has abated off-screen before we knew him, and De Palma gives us his gentlest character.

 The terminal destination in  Carlito’s Way

The terminal destination in Carlito’s Way

The film is De Palma’s most impressive orchestration of disparate forms colliding on a wide tapestry of violence and passion.  If Carlito’s Way, a film that keeps getting better with time, is the ’70s-sprung Movie Brat’s last stand in a year when Jurassic Park, directed by De Palma’s friend Steven Spielberg, catapulted us into the future, it’s a fitting one. His next film, 1996’s Mission: Impossible, is a convergence of television and movies, anticipating, almost satirically, the franchise mandates of the coming years, though with the filmmaker’s trademark perversity. It dares to introduce its starry cast and then kill them all within minutes (except Mr. Cruise, of course). The new hyper-capitalist Hollywood centers around the manufacturing of disposable characters who evaporate as quickly as they’re introduced.

But not Carlito Brigante. To watch Carlito’s Way is to hang out with Carlito, and he’s never dull company. The movies lie to us 24 frames per second, De Palma likes to remind us, and we oftentimes fall for it. But this film and this character find the illusion transfixing and energizing. We’re all doomed in De Palma’s world, but the chase toward the terminal is spectacular.


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This essay was originally written to commemorate Carlito’s Way’s 20th anniversary in November 2013, posted in the now-defunct L’etoile Magazine. It’s since been slightly revised (some prolix reigned in, with 1000 words cut—though still too voluminous perhaps) and posted here, on the eve of the film’s 25th anniversary.